Educate for life, for we hurry to death

In early September, we visited a Fife cemetery to pay our respects to a much-loved friend who died recently.

Taken before his time, he had been an inspirational and optimistic figure and we tried to maintain a positive outlook as we entered the neat country graveyard.

Davie loved the mountains, so it is comforting to see he is in good company: a few yards away is the rock slab marking the grave of mountaineer Mal Duff, who died on Mt Everest. Beyond the cemetery wall, the imposing Ochils emphasise the grandeur of nature, even in this part of the lowlands.

Reading inscriptions on nearby graves, an awful reality dawned: very few old people were buried here. There were men and women dead in their 40s and 50s; many who had "died in infancy"; 19 and 20 year-olds - from every decade since 1910 - killed as soldiers; there were large numbers from local pit disasters - often followed tragically by wives and other family members in close order. You could only guess at the tragedies hidden by the careful lettering and the thoughtful verses.

Extending our walk, willing the rows to be listing octogenarians and great grand-parents, we found only more of the same: aged 18 - killed in a road accident; twins who died together aged eight; brothers who followed brothers to their death while still in their teens.

We tried to understand the reason for the awful demographics of burial in this particular cemetery, till the chilling thought struck us that, in all probability, it was not unique. We had a vision of similar cemeteries with similar graves in all the other post-industrial landscapes - in Yorkshire, Lanarkshire, Tyneside, Nottinghamshire, Kent and South Wales - places where coal used to be king, where foundries used to roar and where education stopped at 14 or less.

Just days earlier, the news had headlined a report which illustrated, without any doubt, the effect of poverty on life chances, educational opportunities and, ultimately, on life span. It was well-written and made its case concisely - but not half so effectively as those rows of graves in that Fife cemetery, whose clearly carved message to all of us was: if we don't educate our students for life, we hurry them to death.

Sean McPartlin, is depute head of St Margaret's Academy, Livingston.

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